MPs: We speak up for Israel - and get death threats

Louise Ellman

Louise Ellman

MPs who have spoken in support of Israel have been forced to limit the information they make available to constituents and take other security precautions after being sent death threats or abusive messages by post, by phone or online, a JC investigation has revealed.

Two years after Labour's Stephen Timms was stabbed by a radicalised student, security remains a key concern, especially for MPs who are vocal about controversial topics such as Israel - and suffer threats as a consequence. Two weeks ago Conservative MP John Howell was forced to seek police protection after becoming the target of a campaign by pro-Palestinians.

Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, has been dealing with death threats for a decade. The problem has worsened in recent years and she now receives emails as well as letters.

"It's very unpleasant and I am concerned - so I take advice from the police and the CST," said Mrs Ellman. "You are vulnerable as an MP, people approach you and you're in public places."

Lee Scott, Ilford North MP, said he dealt with death threats and abusive communications "on a fairly regular basis", including a recent email that said he should be "stoned to death".

"At one stage I would do my surgeries with just one other person present. I don't do that any more," he said. He also no longer posts details of his surgeries in the local library and during the last election campaign had to be accompanied by police officers for security reasons.

Their cases are by no means unique. Former Labour MP Andrew Dismore also received death threats.

Mr Dismore, along with Mr Scott, Mike Gapes and Denis MacShane were all targeted at the last election by Muslim group MPAC for their support of Israel. Richard Harrington, now MP for Watford, also faced hostility during his campaign, while in October 2011 members of the now-banned group Muslims Against Crusades stormed Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer's constituency surgery shouting that he was a "Jewish homosexual pig".

Several others, including Harlow MP Robert Halfon, reported receiving abusive communications in light of public comments about the Middle East – many of them anonymous and online – and those who regularly defend Israel, including Harrow East MP Bob Blackman, said they could "see it coming".

"Whenever I say anything about Israel I get some really nasty messages and I've had lots of nasty stuff written on blogs," said Mr Halfon.

Not long ago somebody attempted to pour petrol through the letter box of Mr Blackman's constituency office and light it. Although police have not yet ascertained the motive, the MP said that it is a reminder that "there are people who will pursue threats".

He only publicises details of his movements after the event. "You have to be careful, because it only takes one unhinged individual," he said.

According to the Serjeant at Arms, 80 MPs are currently facing extreme threats on various issues. It is not clear what proportions of those relate to Israel, but Mr Scott said he believed that the number of those who do not report threats or abuse on Israel could be substantial.

Henley MP Mr Howell, who backs the two-state solution, was bombarded with 30 abusive messages and death threats from anti-Israel activists last month, including one saying that he deserved to die, and another saying: "You will suffer the consequences of this corruption."

He was targeted after an anti-Israel constituent, Harry Fear, contacted him about Israel's actions in Gaza. The MP responding asking him what his position was on the 100 rockets that had landed in Israel that weekend.

The comment was circulated online by Mr Fear, along with the MP's contact information and an appeal for people to write to Mr Howell "civilly, expressing discontent".

Mr Howell, who was offered police protection, has since removed details of his constituency surgeries and contact information from his website. He expressed concern for his wife, son and his staff, saying that although he did not want to appear to be a drama queen, "you have to take seriously a threat when it says, 'I would like to see you dead".

Mr Scott suggested that the threats only came to public attention "because John had never ever had anything like this in his life before that this came out".

CST has tried to encourage MPs to report abusive material, but Mark Gardner said he believed "that this is a problem that largely goes unreported and certainly unprosecuted.

"If an MP is abused in a criminal manner then there is no reason why the perpetrators ought to have some kind of magical immunity," he said. "It should not matter if the abuse is on Twitter, Facebook, emailing or any other media."

Danny Stone, secretary to the All-Party Parliamentary Group/(APPG) Against Antisemitism, said that social media companies, where much of this abuse is now concentrated, should take a bigger role in regulation, but also noted the "encouraging legal precedents established" last week, when Liam Stacey was convicted of inciting racial hatred with offensive Twitter posts after Fabrice Muamba's on-pitch collapse.

Mr Halfon said it was time to "row back" from a culture where people feel that "they can threaten people without any consequences".

"The Stacey case is a warning to people that abuse just won't be tolerated any more," he said.

"People can have a go at me, but if they make threats and go beyond what is fair they should face the full consequences of the law."

Mr Scott, who has been in office since 2005, said that he was "used" to being targeted by extremists because of his views on Israel. "That doesn't mean that it doesn't upset me - it's just that now I expect it."

But he and others said that despite the "intimidation", their commitment to standing up for Israel would remain strong. "These people want to shut out anyone who is sympathetic towards Israel whether through threats, abuse, and making antisemitic comments," said Mr Halfon. "It makes me even more determined because I must not let them win."

Last updated: 12:02pm, April 5 2012